Pakistan's top judge Tuesday ordered the arrest of the prime minister over corruption allegations, threatening to exacerbate political turmoil as thousands of protesters demand the dissolution of parliament.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry ordered the arrest of 16 people accused in graft allegations over power generation projects in 2010 and told them to appear in court on Thursday, a lawyer for the national corruption watchdog told AFP.
The Supreme Court order came as thousands of people led by cleric Tahir-ul Qadri demonstrated close to parliament on the third day of a mass-protest march, demanding the immediate dissolution of the government.
A general election is due to be held by mid-May, but Qadri has demanded that a caretaker government be set up immediately, in consultation with the military and the judiciary, and implement key reforms before elections are held.
His demands are seen by critics as a ploy by elements of the establishment, particularly the armed forces, to delay the elections and sow political chaos in a country that was ruled by the military for decades.
An intelligence official has estimated the size of the crowd at 25,000, which would make it the largest political protest in the capital since the government led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was elected in 2008.
The order by the chief justice, who has been at loggerheads for years with the coalition government, will heighten an already febrile political atmosphere.
Analysts said the order would not force Raja Pervez Ashraf out of office but said even if the timing was a coincidence, coming at the time of the protest it would fuel theories of a judicial-military conspiracy.
Amir Abbas, lawyer for the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), said the chief justice had ordered all those involved in the so-called rental power plant case, "regardless of rank", be arrested.
"The name of Mr Raja Pervez Ashraf, who was then minister for water and power, is also included in the list of accused persons... so the concerned authorities have to make arrest lawfully," Abbas told AFP.
Qadri's supporters camped out near parliament cheered and danced when told of the order against Ashraf.
"This is our first victory. We will stay here until all our demands are met," Qadri's deputy, Sadiq Qureshi, told the crowd.
The Karachi Stock Exchange 100 index fell sharply, losing 2.74 percent in a little over half an hour.
Ashraf took office in June last year after the Supreme Court dismissed his predecessor Yousuf Raza Gilani for contempt after he refused to ask Swiss authorities to reopen corruption cases against the president.
In a frenzied address, Qadri blamed a corrupt government for the ills of a country beset by a fragile economy and Islamist violence.
He led his followers into the capital overnight, the climax of a 38-hour journey from the eastern city of Lahore.
"I want to ask you to stay until tomorrow," Qadri declared, speaking from inside a bullet-proof box. "Hopefully after tomorrow there will be no need to stay any longer," he added.
Police earlier clashed with stone throwers and protesters brandishing sticks, shooting into the air and firing tear gas.
Eight police were hurt in the clashes, doctor Tanvir Afsar Malik, a spokesman for the Federal Government Services Hospital, told AFP.
Organisers of the rally accused police of opening fire and of attempting to arrest Qadri. The government has called his demands anti-constitutional.
Qadri, who runs an educational and religious organisation with networks all over the world, returned to Pakistan last month from Canada, where he also has citizenship.
His supporters say his calls to end corruption and implement reforms could be the solution to endless problems in Pakistan, brought to the brink by a crippling energy crisis and years of Islamist bloodshed.
But if held on schedule, the election will mark the first democratic transition between two civilian governments in Pakistan's 65-year history.